This national firm has put a rocket under its business arm, rivalling its traditional strength in personal legal services.
Here's the red-pill/blue-pill conundrum facing applicants to IM: they must decide whether to commit to its personal legal services (PLS) division – which covers everything from personal injury to family law – or its business legal services (BLS) unit, which consists of the usual commercial suspects: banking, corporate, litigation, real estate and more. “It may not be the best set-up if you're not 100% sure at university which legal path to walk, but it does give you the chance to specialise early,” reasoned insiders.Where future IMers choose to walk their selected path is another matter for consideration:with 14 offices across the country, covering major markets like London, Manchester and Bristol, IM certainly ticks the 'national firm' box and is well-placed to accommodate a range of geographic preferences. At the time of our calls there were 23 trainees apiece in London and Birmingham; 21 in Sheffield (IM's birthplace); 15 in Leeds; ten in Manchester; five apiece in Bristol and Newcastle; and two apiece in Cambridge and Southampton.
“It does give you the chance to specialise early.”
IM rose to prominence off the back of its personal legal services work, and two thirds of its lawyers currently devote their time to the area. In Chambers UK, IM's considered a national leader for its clinical negligence and personal injury work, while on a UK-wide basis its Court of Protection, civil liberties and claimant-led police law expertise also picks up nods. “If you want to do work in a broad personal legal services practice, there are few firms that offer training contracts exclusively in the area,” said insiders, highlighting what drew them to the firm. The work undertaken in this area can be high profile: with a top ranking for international personal injury matters, IM's lawyers have handled claims tied to the 2015 terrorist attack in Sousse, the 2012 'Costa Concordia' disaster and 9/11.
But those with a brain for business should prick up their ears too. IM's BLS arm has been beefed up after it absorbed regional player Thomas Eggar, which gave the firm some well-regarded real estate and private wealth practices. Sources felt that “the merger has helped secure a balance across the UK offices and assists us with the goal of strengthening our commercial remit.” Seven of the firm's 15 partner promotions in 2017 were in BLS, signalling the firm's push to develop a “full-service, holistic approach for clients.” Hotspots for the more business-oriented work include London (for mid-market real estate) and Birmingham (for banking and restructuring), as well as the firm's offices in Yorkshire and the South: these pick up rankings in areas like corporate, construction, IT and employment. Among other reasons for joining the firm, trainees cited IM's track record for growth (between 2012 and 2015 it merged with eight firms) and conversion to an Alternative Business Structure (you can read more about this online).
PLS trainees complete three four-month seats, followed by a 12-month stint in the area they intend to qualify into. Sources felt the system “ensures a superior transition into qualification,” but added that “it would have been nice to spend a bit more time in some of the departments before committing.” They also emphasised that a training contract in PLS requires a degree of resilience: “Things are often very emotional. You have to balance being emotionally invested enough to sympathise with the situation with being detached enough to not take your work home with you.”
Trainees in this division can complete a seat in asbestos-related disease. “Most of the clients have mesothelioma (an aggressive form of lung cancer), which means you have to move quickly. A lot of the work – such as drafting witness statements – is front-loaded as clients often pass away during the cases.” Trainees need to channel their inner Sherlock Holmes as much of the work is investigative: “As the exposure occurred a long time ago, it involves badgering HMRC to get the details of the client's employers, identifying their insurers and obtaining medical records.” Sources added that the department is especially busy at the moment: “Most of our clients were working in the 1970s and 80s, but they've only just been diagnosed because the illness has a long latency period. The number of asbestos claims has peaked as a result, and going forward it looks like there'll be enough work for the next few decades.”
Within IM's broader personal injury remit sits the clinical negligence department. It is known for its handling of traumatic birth cases, but its range covers everything from late cancer diagnoses to surgical errors. Lawyers in Birmingham recently worked on the headline-hitting Ian Paterson case; Paterson was found guilty of conducting unnecessary operations and exaggerating the risk of cancer to convince patients to undergo breast surgery. IM is helping Paterson's former patients to bring civil claims against private provider Spire Healthcare and the NHS. “Most of the cases involve multimillion-pound claims,” sources explained, emphasising the significance such matters have in clients' lives. As for the approach to these cases, “it's always very methodical, technical and scientific,” trainees told us; “the department runs like a well-oiled machine.” And trainees' place in this machine saw them reviewing medical records, drafting letters to experts, attending court hearings and generally doing “anything to help the client get back on their feet.”
“The number of asbestos claims has peaked.”
The family department is no less emotionally demanding. “You're often reaching out to people at their lowest points,” one source noted, pointing to the complications thrown up by divorce, financial remedy proceedings and matters surrounding a couple's children (all of which the department handles). The team also takes on work in niche fields such as child abduction. “There's no real limit to what you can do,” one insider felt. “As a trainee I would often be sent to court without supervision, on top of arranging client meetings and putting together research with supervisors.” A contentious trusts and probate seat offers another suitable refuge for those averse to the potentially gruesome aspects of personal injury work. “You do a lot of the preliminary work to set up a new file for clients who may be contesting the will of someone who recently passed away. You go on to draft instructions to counsel, and it's a really interesting seat, as it exposes you to alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation.”
Unlike their PLS pals, BLSers complete the standard four seats, which are allocated “based on the firm's business needs and your own preferences.” Sources told us that the generally smaller size of the departments – some of which can only take on one or two trainees – can make it hard to secure top preferences, so they advised future trainees to “not to be a wallflower! You need to make it known what you want!”
The firm's real estate practice is one of the bigger BLS departments. While some offices do boast certain specialisms – the London office, for example, has a particular strength in real estate finance, while the Birmingham group has a development bent – trainees can expect a broad range of work across locations, including both commercial and more traditional landlord/tenant matters. “You get real responsibility,” a source enthused. “On my first day I helped to close a deal worth over £10 million, for example, but in general trainees are encouraged to review, draft and negotiate leases independently.” Recent highlights saw the team in Birmingham advise on the £12 million sale of Staffordshire University's main campus to a Chinese investor; in London, meanwhile, HSBC continues to be a key client, with the department advising the bank on its £10 million acquisition of a shopping centre, plus the £22 million refinancing of a portfolio of mixed-use properties.
The commercial litigation department deals with all sorts of disputes, including breaches of directors' duties, defamation claims, intellectual property rights spats and IT fallouts. Sources in Sheffield were especially happy, as “the commercial cases are in-depth and complex; they require trainees to do lots of research and assist with big disclosure exercises.” Clients across the Sheffield and Leeds offices include insurance company Westfield Health, French manufacturer Scrome and Belgian chemicals specialists Christeyns. Lawyers in Manchester have been busy acting for a large group of consumers during a multi-million mis-selling claim (involving Swiss franc loans) against a mix of law firms, property developers and Cypriot banks.
“I think the firm provides the best example of how people can be competent, clever and good at their jobs, but also down to earth and easy to get on with."
A commercial seat without the contentious aspect is available for those who prefer transactional work. One source described it as a “growing department” that exposed them to “some sports law, franchising agreements and general terms and conditions; I was reviewing military contracts, drafting reports for clients and helping to deliver training for them too.” Leeds was cited as the place to go if IP work is what you're after; the group has been defending beauty product manufacturer R N Ventures against patent-related proceedings brought by L'Oreal, which claims its electronic face brush rights have been infringed. Those in employment told us that “we have a number of clients who retain IM for day-to-day legal support and contact us when they have a dismissal or redundancy that they need advice on.” This enabled trainees to “prepare witness statements and letters asking people to attend disciplinary hearings, as well as research before a claim reached the tribunal.” Clients here include Fat Face, EasyJet and National Grid.
It's morphin time!
Despite each office maintaining a certain 'vibe,' sources agreed with this trainee's assessment of the overriding culture: “I think the firm provides the best example of how people can be competent, clever and good at their jobs, but also down to earth and easy to get on with. A lot of people believe that if you're grounded then there must be some sort of intellectual trade-off, but we show that those things aren't mutually exclusive.” Click on the firm's website and you'll find that this combination of traits is evident in IMs 'core values,' which consist of the following qualities: pioneering, approachable, tenacious, efficient and integral. That may read like a personality job spec for becoming a Power Ranger, but trainees were adamant that “it's not just jargon advertised on the website – there's a real focus on those qualities and it makes IM a great place to work.”
However, prospective IM trainees don't have to worry about remaining tenacious and pioneering until 2am as “this is not a long-hours firm. If you're finished and it's gone 5pm, you go home. If you're here until 9pm, people might start questioning your efficiency.” Nonetheless, trainees highlighted that a training contract at IM won't involve 5pm exits every day – on average our sources were leaving by around 7pm. Working after midnight was unheard of, with 10pm deemed the latest that IMers will stay behind.
So how do trainees enjoy their downtime? Well, the London cohort were living it up in the Oxo Tower for 2017's end of financial year party, while the Sheffield lot headed off to the Riverside pub. Office-wide Christmas and summer parties also provide “a good opportunity to unite the PLS and BLS sides, as sometimes it feels like there is a bit of gap between the two.” Less formal events throughout the year also keep morale high; we heard of pizza nights, ping pong competitions, bowling excursions and sporting events occurring across the office network. Last Christmas the Newcastle office was the battleground for the very popular 'Pimp my Pod' competition, which saw trainees competing to decorate their desks in the most festive manner.
Sources also credited the firm for running a smoother qualification process this year. “If there are multiple applications for a position then it does go to interviews,” insiders informed us, but if there's less competition then the process is relatively informal: “You have a conversation with the partner in the team you want to qualify into and they go and make a business case on your behalf.” Some IM trainees have previous paralegal work experience allowing them to qualify early with time to count, so at the time of our calls in early May 2017 many of our second-year interviewees had just successfully qualified. Overall, IM kept on 49 of 64 qualifiers in 2017.
Visit chambersstudent.co.uk for our feature on IM's regional offices and what it's like to practise law outside of London.
How to get an Irwin Mitchell training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 30 June 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Application and video interview
Irwin Mitchell receives over 2,000 applications each year for its 45 or so training contracts that are up for grabs. Applications begin with a cover letter and some questions on “your reasons for choosing to apply to Irwin Mitchell, what you believe you could add to the firm, and your motivations for applying for a particular stream,” graduate recruitment officer Alex Burgess tells us. (Read our True Picture on the firm to learn more about these 'streams'.) There are also the usual competency-based questions, plus ones covering work experience and qualifications.
Around 400 applicants make it to a video interview (a link is sent to the candidate, inviting them to complete the interview at a convenient time within a set deadline). The interviews last 15 to 20 minutes and, in Burgess' words, aim to discover a candidate's “determination to succeed, flexibility, adaptability, commercial awareness and client focus.” There are usually some IM-specific questions too, so be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the firm's practice areas and geographical coverage.
Roughly 200 people go through to the assessment centre, which involves a group exercise, an instruction-taking task, a written task and an interview, plus a Q&A with the trainees.
The group exercise varies each year, but IM always looks closely at “how candidates interact with each other and combine forces to achieve the desired goal.” For the instruction-taking task, candidates listen to a phone message from a potential client and prepare a brief in order to discuss the potential case with the assessors. This tests their ability to extract relevant information, prepare a summary and analyse it effectively.
Then there's the interview, which is carried out by a partner and an associate, or a member of the graduate recruitment team from the office the candidate is applying to. This involves a mix of questions covering the candidate's CV, their motivations, their knowledge of the firm and competencies like client focus and discipline.
IM recruits around 65% of its trainees through its two two-week vac schemes (aka 'Legal Work Placements'). These take place in June and July and are offered in ten of the firm's English offices.
There's no set number of places, but Burgess tells us around 60 students participated in 2017. Vac schemers usually sample two different departments during their visit. According to our sources, the firm “tries to let candidates experience at least one area of interest.” Candidates are asked to provide their preferences before the start of the scheme.
At the end of the two weeks is an interview that covers questions about the candidate's “motivations and career aspirations, their reasons for wanting to work at Irwin Mitchell, and their awareness of what's happening in the legal world.”
How to wow
“As a firm, we take academics into consideration, and are looking for high achievers,” says Burgess. “However, academics are just one area, and we look for candidates who can display skills in a number of areas. As the team read every application, we want to give applicants the opportunity to sell those skills, whatever their background.” Previously the firm did not stipulate a minimum degree requirement, but it now says that a 2:1 is “preferred” – we're not surprised at this slight chance as standards are rising across the profession.
IM is looking for “well-rounded individuals with a good amount of work experience behind them.” It's particularly important to demonstrate interpersonal skills too. As Burgess adds: “You'll be dealing with clients on a daily basis, so these skills are assessed throughout the process.”
Being a lawyer outside London
Alternative Business Structures
Thomas Eggar House,
- Partners 260
- Associates 348
- Total trainees 108
- UK offices Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Chichester, Gatwick, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newbury, Newcastle, Sheffeld, Southampton
- Head of graduate recruitment: Nicola Stanley
- Training partner: Lisa Jordan
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 45
- Applications pa: 2,000+
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or higher preferred
- Vacation scheme places pa: 60
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 30 June 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 15 January 2018
- Open day deadline: November 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £36,000 (London), £25,000 (elsewhere)
- Second-year salary: £38,000 (London), £27,000 (elsewhere)
- Newly qualified salary: Dependent on the office and division you qualify in
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £4,500
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Chichester, Gatwick, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newbury, Newcastle, Sheffeld, Southampton
The Irwin Mitchell independent registered charity, the Irwin Mitchell Charities Foundation (IMCF), has made over £1.5 million of charitable donations since its formation.
Main areas of work
For Personal Legal Services, the firm remains one of the leading personal injury and medical negligence litigation practices in the UK. Irwin Mitchell covers all the key injury areas such as asbestos related disease, serious injury, international travel litigation, medical negligence and product liability, along with family, wills, trust and probate, public law, private client and court of protection.
For Business Legal Services, the firm offers a wide range of commercial services. Areas of expertise include banking and finance, commercial litigation and dispute resolution, construction and infrastructure projects, corporate and commercial, employment, environmental, insolvency, international, investigations and prosecutions, pensions, planning, real estate, recoveries, restructuring, tax.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017